Work Experience: Answering the Question

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Has anyone asked you yet? If they haven't yet, they will and soon. The wording may vary but, essentially, "why this course and what do you plan to do after this course?" It's a big question, easily on a par with the classic employment interview question, "where do you see yourself in 3 or 5 years' time?" Some will have a path mapped out, others will have some sort of vague idea but nothing absolutely definite yet. Then there are those that just do not know. Not at all.  The truth is that gaining work experience makes answering these questions easier and future career choices a lot more manageable. If you have a strong sense of direction, successful work experience in that area is only going to be of benefit. If you are still undecided then completing a placement can help you narrow your career goals. Wherever you are starting from, there are some important things to take on board at the very outset:

  • Firstly, the majority of placements are unpaid. While we all like to be rewarded with cold, hard cash it's important to recognise that the "payment" comes in other ways.
  • A work experience placement will provide you with the opportunity to develop self-confidence and communication skills. You will meet new people as well as getting the chance to network and develop contacts that might be really helpful in the not-too-distant future.
  • You will be increasing your understanding of workplace etiquette and dynamics. The modern workplace is multi-generational and collaborative. Learning to work as part of a team will help you in the future and in many areas of your life.
  • There is the opportunity to really understand the skills that go into performing a particular role day after day; there's no substitute for trying things out for yourself.
  • The placement might also offer the opportunity to talk with members of staff and hear their own stories – understand that each person's path to a particular career is different – gathering information that might help ease worries and concerns about your own "next step"?

Applying for a work placement can be as competitive as applying for a permanent job or Apprenticeship. Many companies now holding formal interviews and assessment centre days. That means you will need to put in the same amount of preparation that you would for a job application. But keep in mind that work-based learning opportunities can lead to successful employment too; we have a good number of students securing apprenticeships this way. Take advantage of college events and careers fairs to make contact with employers. Also search for suitable placements online.
The most meaningful work experience placements tend to go to the students that step up and get actively involved in securing their own placement. Those students take ownership of the process and utilise all the support that is available to them i.e. college Work Experience Co-ordinators, family members, etc. They don't just half-heartedly Google companies in a non-specific geographic area or pick up the phone once and give up when no one answers (or after two rings just IN CASE someone answers). There is so much support available – take it, use it but own the process.
It is really important to be proactive with your workplace mentor and colleagues. Get stuck in and show a general willingness to work; volunteer for additional jobs, project work and so on. Take the opportunity to learn as much as you can about the sector, industry and employer. Remember also that not everything you learn and experience will seem helpful now but, trust me, you'll be surprised by how often earlier experiences come in handy further down the line.
When those difficult questions I mentioned are eventually asked, wouldn't it be great to be closer to definite answer? Work experience is key to that. And the bottom line is that there is a direct relationship between effort and results – both when finding a placement and interpreting the experience into something meaningful; it all begins and ends with YOU.